Unitarians in Northampton put final touches on fossil fuel-free church

John Poirier, left, a member of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence who serves on the society's House and Property Committee, stands with one of the new heat pumps installed in order for the church to meet its decarbonization goals.

John Poirier, left, a member of the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence who serves on the society's House and Property Committee, stands with one of the new heat pumps installed in order for the church to meet its decarbonization goals. CONTRIBUTED/BILL DIAMOND

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 12-09-2023 5:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — With the recent installation of new heat pumps in their downtown building, the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence has capped off an ambitious 10-year effort to decarbonize the Main Street church.

The heat pumps, which began operation early in November, replaced five gas-burning furnaces within the church’s basement, said Bill Diamond, the chair of the church’s Climate Action Group. The installation posed several unique challenges, with the 118-year-old church having poor insulation due to the brick walls, high ceiling and stained-glass windows.

“Two of the furnaces in particular were at the end of their lifespan, so they had to be replaced,” Diamond said. “So there was some urgency to this.”

Over a period of about two years beginning in 2021, the church worked with the Center for Ecological Technology (CET) in Florence to perform an “energy audit” of the building, identifying projects that could improve the insulation and save energy. The CET also worked to coordinate the church with MassSave, allowing for some partial state funding for the heat pump installation.

Diamond also launched a capital campaign for the church in late August, with a goal of raising $110,000 for the remaining funds needed to purchase the heat pumps. That goal was met after one month with the church raising more than $134,000, according to Diamond.

“With the extra money, we’re able to replace the commercial gas range in the kitchen and the gas water heater,” Diamond said. “So the building will be totally fossil-fuel free.”

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The installation of the heat pumps was performed by Cozy Home Performance of Easthampton. With winter fast approaching and the old furnaces needing to be replaced, installation was performed quickly, and the heat pumps were running in time for the church’s Sunday service on Nov. 26.

A 10-year quest

The Unitarian Society’s quest for decarbonization began in 2013, when the church decided to divest from fossil fuel stocks in its endowment portfolio. In 2015, the church also conducted a successful capital campaign to install solar panels on the building’s roof.

“There were some people concerned that moving out of those fossil fuel stocks would hurt the performance of the endowment,” Diamond said. “And the result has been over the past few years, the endowment has been just fine.”

The Unitarians success in decarbonization comes at a time when the city is moving to reduce reliance on fossil fuels within building infrastructure. In September, Northampton became the first municipality in western Massachusetts to approve a new specialized building code, advocated by the state, with more stringent sustainability requirements for future building development.

Affordable housing projects in the city have also made efforts to provide sustainability in their housing, with three new Habitat for Humanity homes at 781 Burts Pit Road containing an innovative new solar-powered heat pump system that only around a thousand other homes across the country possess.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.